Clockwise from left: Volvo XC90, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, Land Rover Discovery
Clockwise from left: Volvo XC90, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, Land Rover Discovery
Image: Waldo Swiegers

Shoppers would be right to feel overwhelmed by the choices available in the sport-utility vehicle segment. From pint-sized tykes with a sprinkling of ruggedness to big-bodied behemoths that can tackle serious treachery with eyes closed, there's a lot to choose from.

Three of the offerings here sit at the top of their respective brand hierarchies: the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90.

Not so for the Land Rover Discovery and Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class. From the British marque, you can go bigger in the form of the Range Rover. And Mercedes-Benz serves up the hefty GLS-Class. BMW will get a new range-topper in the X7.

The assortment of products has one struggling to pinpoint classifications. You could describe these five vehicles as upper-medium sport-utility vehicles. Let's zone in on the Mercedes-Benz stable for clarity. If the GLA-Class is "compact" and the GLC-Class is "medium" then surely the GLE-Class would be "upper-medium" before we land at the "full-sized" GLS-Class.

Right, with that foreword out of the way, allow us to relay our findings after a week with these upscale contenders whose personalities straddle outdoorsy and urban.

The BMW X5
The BMW X5
Image: Waldo Swiegers

1. BMW X5
Priced from R988,700

BMW loves to go on about how they make cars for those who love driving. We're not sure how consistent that statement is across the entire range. But driving the X5 back-to-back with its peers, the on-road adeptness of the vehicle stands out.

It stops and steers in a manner unbefitting a cumbersome sport-utility vehicle body format. So, top marks for its performance on asphalt then.

The trade-off comes when the tarred surface makes way for dirt. It'll be fine trundling through the unpaved surface to your favourite eatery around the Cradle of Humankind. But don't expect much more, especially when equipped with low-profile tyres and posh styling accoutrements, as was our tester.

Our resident off-roader, Tumelo Maketekete of IGNITION television channel's GT HumpZ segment, simply chuckled when asked about the car's terrain-mashing credentials. Although its shyness on the rough stuff would prove irrelevant to families in cityscapes, its popularity is evidenced by how common the X5 is on local roads - despite being around since 2013.

But it's feeling its age in some departments: the infotainment system and the interior ambience seem outmoded when compared to peers. The xDrive30d derivative we drove (230kW and 450Nm) erred on the clattery side and its engine operated in a grumbly fashion compared to the refinement of certain competitors.

The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class
The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class
Image: Waldo Swiegers

2. MERCEDES-BENZ GLE-CLASS
Priced from R969,600

Much like its rival from Bavaria, the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class is no spring chicken. But time seems to have been less kind to the sport-utility vehicle from Stuttgart.

Do you remember the ML-Class? Tony Yengeni probably does - that was the same vehicle by another name. The brand adopted a new naming convention with the letter "G" assigned to vehicles with a more utilitarian slant. It underwent a title change, but no radical transformation since 2011, which is a lifetime ago in the automotive landscape.

The weight of the three-pointed star emblem counts for much, however. And Mercedes-Benz still garners reverential stares wherever it treads.

Aside from that, making a case for it as a purchasing decision is tough. Buyers will note the previous-generation fascia template, which looks old-school in comparison to newer Mercedes-Benz stablemates.

That our GLE 500e wielded forward-thinking hybrid technology was amusing, given the age of the model.

Its engine 3.0-litre, V6 petrol mill produces 245kW and 450Nm, while the electric source offers a supplementary 85kW and 340Nm. It proved to be a decent performer with a fair ride, courtesy of standard air suspension.

But overall, the GLE-Class is a tough sell: well over a bar for six-year-old technology?

Our tester also suffered from a faulty fuel gauge which indicated a 0km range no matter how many times we chucked in 95-grade juice.

The Volvo XC90
The Volvo XC90
Image: Waldo Swiegers

3. VOLVO XC90
Priced from R931,300

Volvo is on a good path. The brand has come armed with a formidable new styling language, impressive semi-autonomous driving technologies and interiors to rival the best of them. Its XC90 underpinned the company's revitalisation.

Adding further credence to their emergence as a serious premium player was the model's victory as 2016 South African Car of the Year.

There's an assuring cushiness to the world once ensconced in the liberally-padded driver's seat of the XC90. One feels calm, cosseted and so wonderfully insulated from the frantic elements of Joburg driving.

This air of detachment can extend to your driving inputs, if you please. The Pilot Assist system frees up the driver for pursuits like updating the Instagram account and sharing pictures of pets on Pinterest. Look, seriously, just keep those hands on the wheel. The car will remind you to do so, should it sense no pressure on the steering for a period.

So, it's not as driver-orientated as the BMW. It's people-orientated. It's a fuss-free, soothing companion for a family of seven and its dog. You can forgive that it pitches under braking and heaves under foot-flat acceleration. It's not going to be driven with enthusiasm in any case, and as a freeway cruiser it's just delightful.

We were given the T8 Twin Engine hybrid version for this driving experience. A 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine (235kW and 400Nm) is on duty. This is aided by an electric motor with 65kW and 640Nm. All fine when fully-charged but, on engine power alone, the boosted cylindrical quartet could offer a little more pluck around town. Don't hold your breath for bigger displacements, though. Electrification (fully and partially) will be Volvo's direction going forward.

The Audi Q7
The Audi Q7
Image: Waldo Swiegers

4. AUDI Q7
Priced from R1,052,000

You really must pity the Audi Q7. There it sits in the quiet corner of the sport-utility vehicle shindig. If only people would dig deeper than the unassuming, bland character, they would find a product brim-filled with substance where it truly matters.

In the areas of build quality and under-the-skin engineering integrity, this wallflower from Ingolstadt is sublime. Business as usual for Audi, then.

One wonders what the 2016 Car of the Year battle would have been like against the XC90 had the Audi been launched before the deadline for consideration.

Anyway, here it is - reminding us of its wholesome and virtuous nature. For starters, the refinement aspect. Even sans air suspension it delivers exemplary ride quality.

Our tester was equipped with the pneumatic trickery, however. There is virtually nil obtrusion of wind noise, harshness and vibration. Bear in mind that the platform underpinning the Q7 also serves in the ultra-luxurious Bentley Bentayga. Its 3.0-litre, turbocharged-diesel engine (183kW and 600Nm) pulls like a train.

The Q7 has the less impressive distinction of carrying the biggest base price tag here. Not that a few extra bucks would truly matter at this end of the scale.

Furthermore, there is only one derivative on offer. The Audi is outstanding in most quantifiable measures. It just seems to lack "that thing" - to quote infamous former SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng.

Land Rover Discovery
Land Rover Discovery
Image: Waldo Swiegers

5. LAND ROVER DISCOVERY
Priced from R947,400

Imagine if explorer Kingsley Holgate sculpted his beard and adopted the sweet-smelling trappings of a metrosexual lifestyle. One thinks of such a transformation when considering the latest Land Rover Discovery, which has taken on a sophisticated, city-slicker persona, right down to its more streamlined design template.

After driving it at launch, we were left a tad ambivalent. Previously, the Discovery was clear in its role. This one appears to ape certain elements of its Range Rover siblings. Not a bad thing, if budget limitations prevent you from buying into the high-end sub-brand.

Unsurprisingly, this is the product you'd feel best in if serious off-roading was on the cards. Seven seats were standard previously, but now you'd have to specify them as an option.

It is considerably lighter, having shaved off 480kg thanks to its aluminium-intensive monocoque body construction. The vehicle treads with more poise and is less cumbersome to manoeuvre.

On test we had the 3.0 TDV6 (190kW and 600Nm), which is still the one to have over the thirstier, supercharged petrol unit.

Ardent Discovery fans might cling to the view that it was hip to be square in the boxy, authentically-rugged predecessor models. The new car has evolved to pander to a wider audience. We just wish they forewent that asymmetrical tailgate, a poorly-executed nod to an old design cue.

LAST THOUGHTS

• If you're after a sport-utility vehicle that emphasises the "sport" bit, the BMW X5 will do nicely.

• The off-roading champion is undoubtedly the Land Rover Discovery.

• Audi's Q7 offers peerless build quality, refinement and some might like its unassuming persona.

• The Volvo wows with its sumptuous interior and standard semi-autonomous driving elements.

• But, it's a struggle to identify truly impressive merits in the GLE-Class. Ok, it's got the Mercedes-Benz badge.

This article was originally published by the Sunday Times.
You can view the original article here.

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